Born 200 years ago this July 29, Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of "Democracy in America," wound up explaining this country better than anyone before or since.
The son of a French aristocrat, Tocqueville was only 25 when he journeyed to America, along with friend Gustave de Beaumont, for a nine-and-a-half month trip - traveling seven thousand miles, venturing south to New Orleans and as far north as Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
Ostensibly, he came to study America's penitentiaries, but what he had in mind was a far larger agenda. Nothing about America, its institutions and its people, escaped his fresh eye and penetrating intelligence. To this day, no book about the American national character is so often, and so profitably, quoted.
An indefatigable reporter, Tocqueville asked questions of ordinary workers, professors, doctors, and prominent political leaders - then went home to write "Democracy in America," an instant bestseller when the first of two volumes appeared in 1835. The title has never been out of print, though as one critic put it, the great work remains one of the world's least-read classics.
Tocqueville had something to say and much to teach and his two-volume work remains the best ever written on democracy and the best ever written on America. Virtually every aspect of the American national character swung into focus under Tocqueville's microscope - from race relations, to the family, to religion, to manners, to the arts.
Few can approach Tocqueville's uncanny, accurate insights and vision. His was a great mind at work, rarely off course. Tocqueville described Americans as people whose lives are "so practical, so confused, so excited, so active, that little time remains for them for thought."
Tocqueville discovered an America rich in contradictions - an emerging nation whose people almost never failed to lend one another a helping hand, but were taught from birth that they must overcome life's woes and impediments on their own.
Not an unalloyed admirer of America's democracy, Tocqueville fretted about the maddening mediocrity that flourished, the subsequent lowering of the level of intellectual debate, and the "tyranny of the majority" that left little room for originality of thought or opinion.
The power of majority opinion, claimed Tocqueville, could be so great that, once it had made up its mind about an issue, nothing could stop it or even slow it long enough to hear the cries of those whom it crushed in passing.
That, he claimed, "spells danger for the future." That best-known insight seems as true today as it was 180 years ago, since our current focus on patriotism and unity often creates a formidable barrier around thought.
Tocqueville observed that he knew "of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion . . ." How true. There are many places in America today where one might hesitate to voice loudly an unpopular opinion, what with our red-state, blue-state division, partisanship, and patriotic proclivity to label dissenters as unpatriotic or un-American.
Tocqueville also provided many penetrating observations about war - some which might cause present-day liberals to agree. He said, "I predict that any warrior prince who may arise in a great democratic nation will find it easier to lead the army to conquest than to make it live in peace after victory."
Tocqueville especially bemoaned the influence of special interests. While, in 1831, he noted the difficulty evil-doers faced in controlling enough levers of power to do harm and acknowledged a narrowing of extremes of wealth, Tocqueville today might be troubled by our current governmental leadership, the radical growth of our superrich, and the downsizing of our middle class.
Sometimes Tocqueville's piquant 1835 observations on political hypocrisy ring, oh so true about the Washington of 2005. Countering those defects, however, he acknowledged American respect for laws and American democracy's tendency toward slow, peaceful change.
Despite Tocqueville's awareness of America's flaws and contradictions, and despite his tendency to avoid troublesome subjects like poverty and slavery, his "Democracy in America" remains optimistic, admiring, and occasionally flattering. Too bad Tocqueville seems so unfailingly accurate about some of our more current flaws.
In his introduction, Tocqueville told his readers, "I saw in America more than America. ... It was the shape of democracy itself which I sought." He sought it and portrayed it so well that, 180 years after his book was published, we Americans can only marvel at the precision of his timelessly relevant insights.
Reach Observer columnist Robert Brake at firstname.lastname@example.org